Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


letting off the Happiness

Author: sienna
02/01/2000 | | | Album Review
It begins with a wall of white noise that goes almost unnoticed. The album is small, ten songs, decorated in green and coral and white sunbursts and it slips into the background easily at first. Singer/songwriter Conor Oberst offers listeners an image of himself several times: the boy in the bedroom playing his guitar and recording on four-track. But what starts out so softly gives way to fierce strumming and then agonized vocals that rise in a crescendo until you're forced to give the song your full attention.

"And I scream for the sunlight, or a car to take me anywhere. Just get me past this dead and eternal snow. Because I swear that I am dying, slowly, but it's happening..." It isn't pretty, and it's far from perfect, but the delivery is so unself-conscious and heartbreakingly honest, the pain driven by such an oddly hummable melody, that the impact leaves you as breathless as Oberst following that screaming fit. These songs illustrate the fight against apathy, the pain of breaking with the past when all you want is to keep your fragile grip on brief happy memories, the struggle to make it through each day. This is music for a dead winter day, a static-filled television screen, endless inescapable stretches
of flat plains.

The answer to your question is yes; this album is depressing. Incredibly so. Hearing the grief of the mother in "Padraic my Prince" as she speaks to the ghost of her drowned baby boy, it would take little convincing to believe that this story is true, that the mom in question is Oberst's and that's his deceased brother he's mourning. (This isn't the case.) But the flip side to all of this pain is the freedom of release. Let it all out and it no longer drags you through that dead and eternal snow. Letting Off the Happiness is proof that music can simultaneously depress and uplift.

There's no overriding musical theme or particular sound that can describe Bright Eyes. "If Winter Ends" is about as emotional as a mostly acoustic guitar-heavy rock song can be, and the aching
"June on the West Coast" is veering well into country terrain. "The City has Sex" finds Bright Eyes playing spontaneous punk, complemented by borrowed drummer Jeremy Barnes (Neutral
Milk Hotel) on frenetic percussion. The basis is a pre-XO Elliott Smith-like guitar/vocals combination, but added to this are keyboards and organs, "atmospheric noises" and accordians and finger cymbals. Neely Jenkins, who played with Oberst in Park Ave. (album out on Urinine), complements his voice sweetly with her own on two of the tracks, including the sloppy melancholy "Contrast and Compare." "Touch" benefits from some weird, seemingly accidental sonic effects and "A Poetic Retelling of an Unfortunate Seduction" is simply beautiful.

This isn't nearly as lo-fi as the first Bright Eyes release, but the production admittedly leaves
something to be desired. Although the songs are, in a sense, pretty stripped down, there's still a
lot going on in them (the lyrics sheet details exactly what's going on in each track), and the
sounds tend to blend together. This can be seen favorably or as a flaw, depending on how anal you
are about sound. It really would be nice to hear each instrument if only to appreciate how
everything fits together, but the album is so good as it stands I don't really think it makes much
difference. For some bands, this technique would be grating, but in the case of Bright Eyes,
the production makes an already distinctive sound even more unique.

My only complaint is the hidden track, an additional version of "Contrast and Compare" that
comes at the end of "Teresa and Tomas." Both are played with the same barely restrained
passion that makes the band's music so compelling, but they're separated by a nearly
20-minute block of humming sound that tests anyone's patience. The fact that it's almost worth
it to sit through that is a testament to the songs. As it is, the skip button works just fine.

Album: Letting Off the Happiness, Bright Eyes' second album, was released late in '98. The less
formally titled A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 came out earlier in the year.
A 5-song EP, Every Day and Every Night was released in November '99 as well, and the third
full-length, Fevers and Mirrors, is due out in March of 2000.

It must be annoying: for Conor to have his age (or lack thereof) pointed out to him in every
review. Who cares? The music is good.

Recommended if you like: Neutral Milk Hotel, Elliott Smith

Sample lyrics: "But these are days we dream about when the sunlight paints us gold, and this
apartment could not be prettier as we danced up there alone. This TV is old, the color is
fucked, do you see the difference in the shades? But the green still glows to green, my love, and I believe we are the same..." - Sienna


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